Using Text-Expansion Software to Respond to Student Writing

Picture of an essay with an editor's handwritten comments on it.I’ve recently started using text expansion software to improve the written feedback I provide to my students with regard to their writing, and it’s made a huge difference. Let me explain.

I teach students how to write. It’s a huge part of my job, and I love it…for the most part. I love talking with students about their writing. I love looking at their drafts and giving them feedback. I love reading what they write. One thing I don’t love, however, is writing up my comments about their writing, comments that not only respond to the content of their work but also to the form.

The reason I don’t love doing this is because it’s an activity that can get very repetitive. In my experience—and in the experience of most of us who read student writing—students tend to run into trouble with the same relatively limited set of problems. They need a nudge here and there with issues ranging from proper academic formatting of the document to using punctuation correctly to getting the syntax of a sentence right to incorporating transitional elements that improve the coherence of a given essay. This is, of course, why there are such things as writing handbooks: writers of all levels—but especially beginners—need a user-friendly reference book to look up the rules for various elements of writing.

With all students in possession of the same assigned writing handbook, rather than write out the rules for commas myself in the margin of every paper that has comma errors, I can just write, “See section C of the handbook,” instead. Such a shorthand reference system only works, however, if I remember what section of the handbook actually covers commas. And the system only works if the student notices the comment I’ve written and then goes and looks up section C and then figures out that there’s a problem with commas.

Maybe, just to be sure, I should write, “See section C of the handbook for an explanation of the rules about commas.” Hmm, what if the student has no idea what I mean when I refer to “the handbook”? (It happens.) Okay, how about “See section C of the writing handbook by Diana Hacker for an explanation of the rules about commas.” Yes, that’s much clearer. But now I have a very long sentence to write in the margin of every student paper that has a comma problem. This won’t do. Enter, stage right, text expansion software.

The (hypothetical) solution introduced: After reading Ryan’s ProfHacker post entitled “Smarter Typing Through Text Expansion,” back in May I began to experiment with the way I compose emails. I’m often using the same phrases over and over again, so I came up with shortcuts for them: “otoh” for “On the other hand,” “btw” for “By the way,” and “lmkwyt” for “When you get a chance, please let me know what you think. Thanks!,” to cite but three examples.

When I sat down to grade this semester’s first batch of student essays, I decided to try the same kind of thing using the assigned writing handbook as a guide to what kind of shortcuts I would create (as well as what the corresponding expansion would be). I write in pen on the pages of the students’ essays relatively economically, using what Richard Haswell terms “minimal marking.” I then turn to my word processor and, having identified which elements of their writing need the most attention, I type a few shortcuts that automatically turn into complete sentences.

  • When I type the shortcut “>101handbook,” what appears on the screen is “In the Norton Field Guide to Writing, the ‘Handbook’ section is in the back of the book, ‘Part 8.’ The pages have yellow around the top and outer edges, and they’re numbered HB-1 through HB-87. Here are some recommended sections for you to read:”

    (I should note that this is an example of what I wrote on the very first graded essays they’ve written. I don’t intend to keep telling them again and again where and how to find the handbook.) I then add a few bullet points like the following:

    • >101,” turns into “Review section P-1 for the rules concerning commas.”
    • >101splice” turns into “Consult section S-3 for an overview of how to identify and correct the errors known as ‘comma splices’ and ‘fused sentences.’
    • >101#” turns into Section “P-11 explains the rules concerning the use of numbers. Sometimes you’ll want to represent them alphabetically (seven) and sometimes numerically (7,247).

So that takes care of making comments about things like grammar or punctuation. What about commenting on the content of their work?

This first essay was a literacy narrative, an account of their experiences with reading and writing throughout their lives. Before they wrote these essays they read a chapter in the textbook about such narratives, they read examples of such essays, and we discussed in class a couple of key features of effective literacy narratives. In particular we discussed the importance of using vivid details and of making the narrative cohesive by identifying an obstacle or challenge that needed to be overcome at some point in their lives. The comments that I made about these aspects of their writing also lent themselves to a text expansion strategy.

  • >101story” turned into “As the Norton explains on page 28, ‘As with most narratives, those about literacy often set up some sort of situation that needs to be resolved. That need for resolution makes readers want to keep reading.‘ I would then follow up that initial (and general) observation with comments specific to their essay.
  • >101vivid” turned into “Your paper would be improved with the use of vivid detail: As the Norton explains (page 28): ‘Details can bring a narrative to life for readers by giving them vivid mental images of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world in which your story takes place. The details you use when describing something can help readers picture places, people, and events; dialogue can help them hear what is being said.’” And, again, I would follow up with comments specific to their essay.

For a hypothetical example of what my feedback looks like when I’m done, take a look at this PDF, where I’ve made all the comments that result from text expansion blue. (When the student sees the comments, however, everything is black.)

Conclusions: It’s still too early to tell, to be honest. I’ve only tried this with their first essays, and I’m going to wait until the semester is over to decide if this is a better way to provide written feedback than what I was doing before. My initial impressions, however, are that this process allows me to get through their paper much faster, and it reduces significantly the amount of time I spend on marking (and explaining) simple technical errors, allowing me more time to compose substantive comments about the content of their writing.

How about you? Have you come up with innovative uses of text-expansion software? Alternatively, have you come up with more efficient (but still effective) ways of responding to student writing? Let us hear from you in the comments!

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Nic McPhee]

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